EASTER SUNDAY SERMON: Recognising the Resurrection By the Bishop of Ely

VIEW of Ely Cathedral from The Old Palace, Kings School, Ely

VIEW of Ely Cathedral from The Old Palace, Kings School, Ely - Credit: Archant

I BEGIN with an apology. I confess that I am one of those people who can walk down the High Street in Ely and walk straight past people I know perfectly well without any acknowledgement.

The Bishop of Ely visits St Mary's, Westry, to celebrate the church's rebuilding

The Bishop of Ely visits St Mary's, Westry, to celebrate the church's rebuilding - Credit: Archant

I am not proud of this, or seeking to justify myself. I just know that I can be either or both moving at speed or pre-occupied with an idea or with my next appointment and fail entirely to recognise people.

Bishop Stephen Conway

Bishop Stephen Conway - Credit: Archant

Other people have done this to me, too. I remember the embarrassment of meeting a senior clergyperson in a London street at whom I beamed in a way that became increasingly ludicrous as he stared right through me. He later apologised and indicated that he had not seen me because it was totally out of context.

Bishop of Ely, Rt. Revd. Stephen Conway at the St. Mary's Church Westry, to celebrate the completio

Bishop of Ely, Rt. Revd. Stephen Conway at the St. Mary's Church Westry, to celebrate the completion of the first phase of the restoration work - Credit: Archant

If we had met on the street in Durham or Newcastle he would have noticed me straightaway. I was relieved because it would be hard to think of myself as being transparent, even after having been poorly.

"Bishop George", kindly knitted by Avis Bidwell, the church verger, Littleport

"Bishop George", kindly knitted by Avis Bidwell, the church verger, Littleport - Credit: Archant

My immediate reaction to Mary Magdalene’s situation in our reading from John’s Gospel is one of acute sympathy both for her anxiety and her disorientation. When she came to the tomb where Jesus had been buried, all she expected was a corpse. She had witnessed Jesus’ terrible death. She may have held his body when it was brought down from the cross.

Bishop Stephen Conway, and (back) Canon Alan Hargrave, with their Letter to the Queen

Bishop Stephen Conway, and (back) Canon Alan Hargrave, with their Letter to the Queen - Credit: Archant

She was steeling herself for even deeper grief and loss as the bitter truth of Jesus’ death was brought home by a stiff and stinking body which religious law said they had not time to anoint properly immediately after death.

Ely Cathedral

Ely Cathedral - Credit: Archant

The empty tomb brings out her worst fears of political machinations and body-snatching. If we think of the crimes of people like the ‘Moors Murderers’, it is not just that they killed innocent children; but that they never told the families where the bodies were buried.

Wisbech Grammar School prize giving. Platform party members (seated from left to right) Dr Dennis Ba

Wisbech Grammar School prize giving. Platform party members (seated from left to right) Dr Dennis Barter (chairman of the governors), the Bishop of Ely, the Right Reverend Stephen Conway, and the headmaster, Nicholas Hammond; a group of the prize winners (standing left to right) Ian Gitonga (third form prize), Georgina Hay (lower sixth form prize), Joshua York (head boy and lower sixth form prize), Alice Wong (head girl), Abigail Charles (first form prize), Louise Evans (GCSE certificate) and Edward Slipp - Credit: Archant

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People have tried to smear the new Pope by association with the former Argentinian regime which snatched any dissenters and tortured and killed them and never let their families know.

This is going on in Syria now, probably on both sides. Many people suffer that double loss of the violent death of a loved one and no grave to mourn at. Mary Magdalene stands for all of us who live daily with the reality of crucifixion and suffering. She failed to recognise the Risen Jesus not because he was somehow veiled from her sight: it was that death completely filled her horizon.

Christians can rather blithely make the point that you cannot have resurrection without death. But the faith which we profess is rooted in the real death of the person who is also the Son of God, Jesus Christ.

We cannot do Easter without Good Friday, as the Dean reminded us in his excellent and uncomfortable Good Friday addresses. Mary Magdalene’s friend and Rabbi had been judicially murdered. She had felt his cooling flesh. She had seen the vicious wounds close up. She was not inclined to recognise her friend alive. When we celebrate the Eucharist, we do so upon a table the empty space below which signifies the tomb of Jesus. On the table we take bread and wine to become the Body and Blood of Christ, sacrificed for us.

It is the crucified redeemer who takes on our death and hopelessness. His heart breaks first so that our heart might beat in conformity with his.

I do not know about Mary Magdalene; but I do know about myself and other people of my acquaintance that if the dead horses we flog were real, we would be in very serious trouble with the RSPCA. Mary kept peering into the tomb, welcoming the comfort and security of a confined space and the darkness.

We stick with our comfortingly familiar failings and guilt and sadness’s and we hold onto ways of behaving and even of believing and praying which do not serve us well anymore.

My own recent experience of a life-threatening illness exposed me eloquently to the reality of existing rather than living, and left me ‘all shook up’, as Elvis would say.

I once went into a newsagent’s in a strange town and asked for directions. The lady asked: ‘Where are you now?’ I was rather disorientated by the question because I was standing right in front of her.

It does present the existential question, though, about the direction of our life as individuals as the Church and as the world: where are we heading? Perhaps the most intimate question is: do we even recognise ourselves?

The intimate answer is that we are completely recognised and loved by death-defeating love in the person of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. One of the most beautiful words spoken in Scripture is when Jesus calls the Magdalene by her name, ‘Mary’.

Through the resurrection, the Father determines that we should share the intimacy that there has always been between Him and the Son in the reality of the Spirit. The great Catholic theologian, Karl Rahner, wrote in his Foundations of the Christian Faith that the death and resurrection of Jesus are two aspects of a single event not to be separated.

The self-offering of Jesus on the cross without the resurrection would still have been a great gift to humanity, in that God came to share the tragedy of human life. By this death God could have taken away our sins without the resurrection of Jesus.

I know that there are many people who cannot believe in the resurrection because they cannot get away from the tragic aspects of our human life. What we proclaim today, however, is that the resurrection is the complete transformation of the tragedy.

The Jesus who calls Mary – and you and me – by name is not a revived corpse. He is the living proof of all that he preached and lived for in his pre-Easter life. His total surrendering of himself to death is vindicated as the Father recognises him as what Rahner calls “the absolute saviour”.

His death sweeps away our sin and failure; but it is his resurrection which makes transformation and new life possible for us, even in the most tragic of circumstances. In Jesus’ new physical body which Mary instinctively wanted to hug and which Thomas was allowed to touch, we recognise the tangible fulfilment of our hope of life now and into eternity.

Optimism can easily be read as a skirting over the facts of life. The difference between optimism and hope is that hope takes the present really seriously and believes that trust in the future which God promises brings life and energy back into that present reality so that we and the world can change in ways we never considered possible.

I can only explain the change in the disciples after the tragedy of Calvary by believing that the resurrection of Jesus brought about the resurrection of the faith of the disciples. They were afraid for their lives and had lost all hope. Now hope was not only restored but taken to a whole new level. It was this new hope for the future which gave them the courage and the energy to carry the good news throughout the known world, whatever present hardship they faced.

This is the testimony of Peter that we have read in the Acts of the Apostles.

It is, therefore, my job this morning to ask myself and you how daring are we prepared to be on this Easter Day?

Mary Magdalene was a recovering mad woman. In her day, women were not allowed to be witnesses in a court of law. Yet God chose her to be the Apostle of the Apostles, the first witness to the greatest event in human history.

Helping people to recognise and live that event was the defining principle of the rest of her life. As Paul says, we would be the most to be pitied if the resurrection was not true and I cannot prove it to you as a certainty.

Hope is not about certainty; it is about trust. Mary did not recognise Jesus at first; but she trusted the voice of the friend who healed her and now saved her.

The Risen Christ calls us all by name. Do not be afraid. Trust and follow him.


Rt Revd Stephen Conway, Bishop of Ely

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